When Brooklyn Center Schools Superintendent Keith Lester retires June 30th, he will have more than just a little history with the school district.
A 1965 graduate of Brooklyn Center High School, Lester returned to the halls of his old school in 2005 as superintendent and found a cash-strapped district with high needs.
"When you look at all the poverty we have, and all the high needs in so many different areas, it was ripe for success. It was ripe for what can we do to make things better," said Lester.
Lester, who came to Brooklyn Center after more than 30 years in the Mora School District, faced a very different school district from the Brooklyn Center he attended in the 1960's.
Now serving a school population that's 80 percent students of color and 80% low--income, the Brooklyn Center District needed money, and levy referendum approvals didn't come easily.
During Lester's tenure, he saw the defeat of eight levy referendum votes. It wasn't until the fall of 2011, when the ninth attempt at a referendum vote finally passed and maintained the district's funding.
"From a financial standpoint, we probably should've been, could've been shut--down a long time ago," said Lester. "We survived because we found other ways to get money."
Through grants and by forging private and public partnerships, Lester helped create a community schools model geared to provide the programs and services to meet the needs of its student population. In 2010, through partnerships with Park Nicollet and other health care agencies, an on-site medical center opened up at Brooklyn Center High School.
All students who live in Brooklyn Center or attend school in the district can access free or low-cost medical, dental, vision, and mental health services at the high school's Health Resource Center.
Brooklyn Center High School Guidance Counselor Kelli Hillestad says that on-site medical facility will be one of Lester's legacies.
"The innovation of being able to have students see doctors here at school and not have to leave school and miss more school only to come back, and having the mental health here has been a tremendous help to our office as well," said Hillestad.
Lester was also key to bringing a licensed daycare to the district's alternative high school, so teen mothers and fathers can get their diploma not dropout of school.
Now in his final month on the job, Lester says the small school district, which he calls a "gem", still has work to do, but he believes it's been polished up by the hard work of an entire community.
"I'm satisfied that we accomplished good things," said Lester.
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